warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Fatima Hussain: “I Thought There Were Opportunities In California.”

Tasbeeh Herwees |
December 21, 2011 | 10:59 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Faces of L.A.’s Jobless: A Neon Tommy Special Report >>>

Fatima Hussain, who left Mogadishu, Kenya and finally Mexico before coming to the United States. (Photo by Tasbeeh Herwees)
Fatima Hussain, who left Mogadishu, Kenya and finally Mexico before coming to the United States. (Photo by Tasbeeh Herwees)

Fatima Hussain is petite.

She’s not much taller than five feet and a few inches. Her neck, long and thin, makes up for most of it. Her collarbone juts out from above her black v-neck sweater. She’s wearing children’s pants -- donated to her -- that fit snugly. 

She uses words sparingly and carefully, not because she doesn’t know much English (she does) but because she doesn’t see fit to use more. 

But her presence is large. Her gaze is forceful and her eyes tell you the stories her words don’t capture. Disappointment colors her words when she talks about her new life in California. 

“It’s going to be all right,” she says. She doesn’t sound convinced. “The way I see it, you don’t bother nobody gonna bother you.”

Hussain is homeless and unemployed. For several weeks this fall she lived in an encampment outside of Los Angeles City Hall. She’s not quite sure what they were protesting, but she preferred her tent at Occupy L.A. to living in homeless shelters. 

“They don’t have jobs either,” she explains. “This country is so crazy,” she shakes her head, half-amused as she watches the protesters dance across the City Hall steps.

Originally from Somalia, Hussain fled Mogadishu in 1991 after her husband was killed in the brutal civil war that began that same year. She left two children with her mother and headed for Kenya.

“We were taken to a refugee camp,” she remembers, “It was really dangerous because the Kenyan police used to rape women.

She lived in Nairobi for 15 years, working as a maid for the Kenyan family who paid her way to Mexico when living in Kenya became unbearable for her. 

“The Kenyan police constantly harass Somali people,” she says, “Every time the Kenyan police will arrest you, you have to pay them to get out, because you’re not a legal citizen. You buy your own freedom.” 

Hussain arrived in the states only six months ago, smuggled through the Texan border. She applied for political asylum when she arrived and immediately booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles. 

“I didn’t like to stay in Texas, I thought there were opportunities in California, you know?” she says. “I was told, there are a lot of people here [in California], they work illegally, I was excited. I thought I could get cleaning jobs or do something.”

She’s had no such luck. Uncomfortable in the homeless shelters, where she had to sleep on the floor and wake up at 6 a.m. every morning, finding Occupy LA was somewhat of a relief. The encampment provided her with used clothes and a relatively regular meal schedule. She even had a small basket of books inside one of her tents. 

“I love to read,” she says. A Harry Potter book stuck out prominently from the basket. Though she’s had schooling in accounting, Hussain would be grateful for any job that came her way. She’s optimistic about the future. 

“It’s just a matter of time” she says, “I know I will be okay. I can get my own apartment, I can get a job, I’m very excited but I’m just going through a situation. Once I get my permit, I know I will be happy.”



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.